Meir Har-Zion, one of Israel’s most celebrated combat soldiers, died today on his ranch in the Lower Galilee. He was 80. While he last saw combat more than 40 years ago and his public appearances were few and far between, he leaves behind a towering legacy, having helped shape the IDF’s warrior ethos in its early, instrumental years, reinventing the model soldier very much in his own image. Prime Minister Netanyahu called him “one of our greatest heroes—a bold warrior full of love for the land and its people.” President Peres called him a legend in his own time, and quoting the prophet Nehemiah, said Har-Zion had “one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon.”
Born in pre-1948 Herzliya, Har-Zion moved to the Jezreel Valley kibbutz of Ein Harod as a teenager. He developed a passion for traveling the land by foot, oftentimes ignoring the young country’s borders in the process. A particularly legendary journey to Jordan’s storied city of Petra—in the days before it was to become a frequent film location—inspired many a copycat, some of which ended in catastrophe.
Har-Zion’s star began to rise when he joined the army. In the summer of 1953, after a brief stint as a boot camp commander, he joined the elite Unit 101 under the command of a young Ariel Sharon. Unit 101 existed for only five months, but amassed a reputation inversely proportional to its brief lifespan. At the time, cross-border raids by Arab fedayeen resulted in the deaths of many civilians and frustrated the IDF. Unit 101 was designed to implement a new doctrine that called for quick and deadly retaliations in response to the attacks.
Targeting the villages the fedayeen originated from, and usually not distinguishing the civilian from the military, the so-called “reprisal operations” were dangerous and controversial, but they energized the IDF and introduced a tradition of initiative-taking, echoes of which can be seen in the preemptive strikes that began the Six Day War in 1967, the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, and countless other instances.
In his diaries, published in 1969, Har-Zion wrote:
Now we are a force. We’re not a tiny gang of four or six sneaking in fear, attacking carefully, leaving our wounded behind. We’re a force. We’re strong, and one glance at the long and silent column is enough to convince one of that. The tension sharpens the senses. The feeling is one of a strong desire to strike, to strike with the utmost force. To knock down and destroy whatever stands in our path. Soon the Tommy gun in my hand will join a choir of dozens like it and then-!
In 1954, soon after Unit 101 was disbanded, merging with a paratroopers battalion, Har-Zion’s sister Shoshana, who shared his love of hiking, was murdered with a friend while walking in the Judean desert by members of a Bedouin tribe. Har-Zion rounded up comrades from his old unit and settled the vendetta, killing four members of the tribe. No trial was held for the soldiers, and Har-Zion was soon back commanding reprisal operations for the paratroopers, risking life and limb—a 1956 operation in Jordan nearly killed him, and made speaking difficult for the rest of his life—but also securing his legacy.
In the 1960s and 1970s Har-Zion—a retired captain who never attended the required officer’s training course because Moshe Dayan ruled that there was no need—helped train the commandos of the secret Sayeret Matkal unit (including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu). He voluntarily returned to reserve duty during the war of 1967 and 1973, ignoring the exemption he was entitled to as a handicapped veteran.
But Har-Zion soon began to fade from the public eye, living a secluded existence in his ranch—named for his sister Shoshana—perched above the Jordan River Valley. He reemerged only intermittently, most recently in a 2005 interview in which he blasted his old friend and commander, Ariel Sharon, prior to Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. Two months after Sharon’s own death, another of Israel’s living legends is gone.
Har-Zion’s philosophies can best be summed up by his diary description of mountain climbing. “To go up, to climb the mountain, up to its top, up to its summit, the summit is the goal, the summit is a dream,” he wrote. “The summit is serenity. And the more effort it takes to conquer the summit, the greater the joy that reaching it brings.”
Related: Ariel Sharon: 1928-2014
Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.